Four universities to benefit from African studies project

Four African universities have been selected to host centres of excellence for an African studies project funded by the government of Germany and allocated an amount of €37 million (US$41.6 million), aimed in part at giving African scholars a chance to pursue local research and helping to correct an imbalance in North-South research relations.

The Africa Multiple Cluster Centres of Excellence in African studies project, led by Germany’s University of Bayreuth, will run for seven years, and will see the hubs established at four universities on the continent – Rhodes University in South Africa, Moi University in Kenya, the University of Lagos in Nigeria and Université Ouaga I Pr Joseph Ki-Zerbo in Burkina Faso.

The universities were selected from a list of 55 applications from 30 countries that expressed interest in hosting the centres, said Rüdiger Seesemann, an African Cluster Centres chair and chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Bayreuth.

An independent selection committee selected 10 institutions that were invited to submit full applications and, after evaluation visits to the institutions in February 2019, the team convened to choose those whose “research foci and African studies agenda provided the best matches for the objectives of the research network”, Seesemann said.

40 years of collaboration

The initiative is one of 57 research clusters funded through the Excellence Strategy of the federal and state governments of Germany and one of the few clusters in the humanities that won funding, according to Seesemann. “It builds on 40 years of collaborative and interdisciplinary research in African studies at the University of Bayreuth and seeks to take African studies to new levels in various respects,” he told University World News.

These will include creating an innovative digital research environment which will seek to explore new ways of collaborative data management and build “virtual connections” for the cluster’s global network, he said.

“Another major part of our agenda is the establishment of new forms of research collaboration between the University of Bayreuth and universities in Africa, or between researchers in the Global North and the Global South, more broadly speaking,” he said. As such the centres will serve as nodes for joint research initiatives and networks within the cluster.

Independent contributions

The four African universities involved will be able to conduct their own research, thus enabling them to make independent contributions to the cluster’s agenda. “Also, they will be the cluster’s on-site research partners in Africa, facilitating the exchange of ideas, the mobility of researchers, the collection of and access to data, and above all offering a platform for ‘reflexive’ research on the continent itself,” Seesemann said.

Some African Cluster Centres (ACCs) have already appointed academic directors who will oversee the activities in their respective universities, while others are in the process of doing so. However, Bayreuth still needs to conclude formal cooperation agreements with each of the host university’s administrations before formal collaborations commence towards the end of the year.

The agreements, according to Seesemann, need to conform both to German laws and the laws of the countries the universities are based in before the initiative is formally launched. This is scheduled to take place in October.

Part of the money allocated for the project will be used to hire eight early-career researchers at Bayreuth and at the ACCs. They will be mainly postdoctoral and doctoral students who will conduct research within the cluster’s projects. Seesemann said 10% of the €37 million will be used to build and maintain a “digital research environment”.

Gender and diversity

“We also take the promotion of gender and diversity very seriously and have allocated significant funds for this purpose. Other activities to be funded include publications, outreach and knowledge transfer, as well as global networking,” he said, without mentioning figures.

In an environment where resources for research, especially in social sciences, are scarce, this funding will allow local scholars to lead research despite being externally funded. “Lack of local or national funding often impedes research activities; international funding, on the other hand, often comes with pre-defined agendas African researchers are supposed to pursue. It is here that our new structure will create new spaces for research in African studies by local scholars,” he said.

It is also hoped the ACCs will support network building between the institutions involved as well as encourage intra-African mobility to help reverse the tendency towards “unbalanced” North-South relations in research, Seesemann said.